A recent tour around the country shows that Nigeria has diverse and huge agri produce to export to the world but lacks the ability to develop, preserve and exploit her invaluable resource, writes Chinedu Eze
From the mangrove to the Sahel, Nigeria has farm and animal produce for export that could yield more foreign exchange than oil and gas.
However, it was all tears, frustration and despair when the video of fruits and other farm produce that were destroyed on transit was shown to the world recently. Due to bad roads, the trucks conveying the produce from the farms to the markets across the country could not continue the journey and all the produce were parked by the side roads for days. All the produce worth millions of naira were eventually destroyed for lack of preservation, as farmers count their losses.
With insecurity, bad roads and timeline, farmers cannot continue to move their produce by road because delays by road transport can destroy the farm produce and give rise to record of losses. It is this reality that prompted the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to set up Aviacargo Roadmap Committee to look into how Nigerian farmers and others could use air to move these produce that are time bound and also preserve them to remain fresh as they get to the consumer.
A tour to different parts of the country by the committee came with priceless revelations. The committee was able to establish that freighting farm produce by air from the farms to the markets would in the long run, yield huge profits to the farmers. It also established that Nigeria has huge potential to export its farm produce, which is in high demand in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world.
THISDAY learnt that the agricultural sector employs about 40 per cent of Nigerians but the country has not maximised the benefits of agriculture because of the low yields of the sector, which is largely subsistent. This is because many Nigerian farmers are yet to know the benefits of producing for international market and even the production for local consumption yields little income because farm produce is largely seasonal.
During the season the produce is available and cheap but after the season it becomes unavailable. Even during the season, it is always difficult to convey the produce to the market where the demand is very high. The effort to move this produce is encumbered by bad roads, insecurity and other inhibiting factors.
Reports indicated that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has put the demand for tomatoes in Nigeria at 2.2 million tons and the supply at 800,000 tons. The ministry added that the actual quantity of tomatoes harvested is 1.5million tons but 700,000 tons are actually lost to post-harvest bottlenecks. But all these inhibiting factors could be solved by air freighting of the farm produce.
Findings indicate that if perishables are moved by air to the different markets where they are in demand in Nigeria, it will take a very short time to move cucumber, tomatoes, carrots from Jos to Lagos; from Kebbi to Onitsha and from Katsina to Port Harcourt. The farmer will move the produce from his farm to the nearest airport within a day and it would be freighted by air to the market. Nigeria has 32 airports. It is only few states in Nigeria that do not have airports, but airports are not very far from many communities that produce farm commodities, from the north to the south.
To make the movement of perishables possible from the airports, Nigerian airports must have cargo terminals with storage facilities and cold chain for perishables, so that farm produce could be preserved and they will remain fresh as they get to the consumers. Agriculture experts in Nigeria have posited that subsistence farmers cannot do this alone; they need the support of their government. Every state government would want to have many of its citizens employed and agriculture is the easiest way of creating jobs. It is expected that state government will support efforts to bring farmers together so that their farm yield can be put together and freighted.
There are suggestions that farmers should form cooperatives and the state governments can facilitate this and encourage the farmers. This will help in gathering farm produce for local consumption and for export. Some observers recalled that in the past when palm kernel was a big foreign exchange earner for the country, small farmers sell their produce to the cooperatives who serve as middle men. After several market days, the middle men would have gathered up to 40 tons of palm kernel and a truck would come and move them to the port. Then it used to be Port Harcourt; however, cocoa in the South West and Mid-West were shipped through Western ports then.
But for perishables there is no luxury of time but the farmers’ cooperative can easily defray the cost of freighting and move their produce in time to the consumers.
Tour of South East
In order to boost export of farm produce and others by air, the Aviacargo Roadmap Committee was mandated by FAAN to study ways Nigeria can increase the volume of its exports, find out ways goods and services could be moved by air locally through the airports and also find out the impediments to air freighting in Nigeria.
The committee is of the view that without well-developed freighting of cargo locally, the farmers, airports and freighters may not have the experience freighting goods from Nigeria to international destinations. Currently, Nigeria is number five in Africa in the volume of goods exported from Africa to the rest of the world. Kenya is number one and the Committee, which has carried out facility tour of Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, said it targets that Nigeria will rise to number one in three years.
It was a shock and a surprise when the committee toured the airports in South-east Nigeria. The revelations include the fact that there is latent huge market in every part of the country. Nigeria has a population of over 200 million people. This means that it is a huge consumer. Nigeria also has 34 million hectares of arable land, including 6.5 million hectares of permanent crops and 28.6 million hectares on meadows and pastures, as agriculture accounts for about 23 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP. So, Nigeria can cultivate tons of farm produce for local consumption and also for export.
The Owerri Airport
The first shocker the committee received was at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, where state-of-the-art cargo terminals built at the cost of N23 billion were languishing in idleness. The eight cargo facilities were built by Gosh Concretes and Allied Products Limited under build and hand over to the government arrangement. The company, according to the Chief Operating Officer, Charles Chukwu, has not been paid. It was a deal negotiated by the Rochas Okorocha administration and THISDAY learnt that when Hope Uzodimma took over as the Governor of the state he said that he was not bound by that agreement and since then he has not reached amicable agreement with Concrete Robotics Limited.
Members of the Aviacargo Committee who toured the facility were demurred about the present status of the facility, saying that it could be put to good use if the state government and FAAN collaborate to fully utilize the cargo terminal.
They also noted that the facility could be given out in concession to a major international airline that operates cargo or online marketing company that could use the facility as receptacle and depot for onward distribution of products. On the export side, the facility could be used to transit perishables for export. According to the Airport Manager, Mrs. Rejoice Ndudinachi, the airport is poised to receive cargo and export same to other parts of the world.
“It is our desire to see cargo service start in earnest. Cargo freighting will be a success in this airport. It is strategically located between two commercial cities: Aba and Onitsha,” Ndudinachi said.
The Coordinator of the Aviacargo Roadmap Committee, Ambassador Ikechi Uko, said for Nigeria to boost its export of agri produce, certain steps must be taken. The state governments must be intentional about cargo export and provide the incentives to the farmers, encourage the provision of the facilities and also interface with the airports management.
He said that if farmers wish to engage in the export of farm produce, they should find out first what the market needs; not what they want to export. For export, Uko explained that farmers must register their farm for traceability. This means that every farm produce must have a provenance without which it could be rejected. The produce must be transported by a known shipper who will certify the produce and it must pass through a registered agent, a registered handling company and a known airline.
The Governor of Enugu state, Dr. Peter Mba, was very happy when he met with the Aviacargo Roadmap Committee and he welcomed the members and said he has interested in export of cash crops from the state. He said currently, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, does not have cargo terminal but he is collaborating with FAAN to urgently build one.
He said that the state has concluded plans to establish 300, 000 hectares of land in each senatorial zone for the cultivation of cash crops that would be processed for export.
Mba said that his administration has laid out the plans to actualize this goal in order to boost the state’s revenue, create jobs and also build associated infrastructure that will enable the state to be a net exporter of different types of farm produce.
Ebonyi State may have the most modern cargo facility that is already completed at its airport and ready to be utilised. The state government said that the state already has farm produce to be exported overseas and even to local markets.
What is unique about Anambra International Cargo Airport, Umueri, is that there is already a collaboration between government and the private sector who have the resources and are seeking for knowledge to start the export business.
The Managing Director of the airport, Martins Nwafor, said the primary focus of the Anambra International Cargo and Passenger Airport is to facilitate efficient air cargo operations, improve passenger satisfaction on domestic flights, and streamline airport facilitation processes.
Nwafor also discussed the airport’s masterplan, which identifies locations for the construction of essential infrastructure while taking into account the abundance of agro-allied products available for export from Anambra to domestic and international markets.
The airport’s offerings include a wide range of agro products that can be processed or semi-processed for export, such as root and tubers, grains and cereals, vegetables, agro forestry products, fisheries, and livestock.
Speaking to THISDAY, the Coordinator of Aviacargo Roadmap Committee, Ambassador Ikechi Uko said that before the Committee’s sensitisation and campaign on improvement of exports from Nigeria by air, governments that owned airports were more focused on passenger movement, but observed that perishables that are wasted while conveying them from the farms to the market by road due to bad roads and long stay on transit would have been transported by air at a slightly higher cost but with the produce intact. He frowned at the fact that Nigeria has 32 airports, but most of the airports are not effectively utilized for cargo freighting.
Speaking in the same vein, a member of the Committee and Chairman of Aircraft Owners in Nigeria, Alex Nwuba, said that most of the airports did not prepare for cargo freighting, noting that before the setup of the committee, most manager of the airports pay lip service to cargo export by air.